The trio of scandals engulfing the White House


(Jonathan Ernst)

There are at least three leadership talking points we will hear again and again regarding the trio of scandals suddenly engulfing the White House.

The first is that every president gets his share of second-term scandals, and that Obama is getting his. Nixon had Watergate. Reagan had Iran-Contra. Clinton had Monica Lewinsky. And the Obama administration now has Benghazithe IRS and the AP phone records.

The second is that the president needs to get out in front of the scandals. He waited three days to say something about the IRS scandal, a near-eternity in politics. His administration didn't get details out about Beghazi quickly enough. And in a press conference Tuesday afternoon, his chief spokesperson was awkwardly cautious about the scandals, sticking closely to talking points and being careful to say it would be inappropriate to be "rushing to conclusions."

The third is that President Obama will need to make decisive moves in response and ensure that some heads roll. Here's Dana Milbank in the Post: "Rather than taking quick action — firing those involved or opening an investigation with more teeth than the inspector general’s — he has left himself at the mercy of events." Others are calling for Attorney General Eric Holder to lose his job (with an acting head at the IRS and most of the top-level officials related to Benghazi already gone, he's practically the only big fish left). Still others say the president needs a new team, one that can advise him better when it comes to the crises he seems to be facing on a daily basis this week.

There is some truth to all of these leadership talking points. The overconfidence and hubris that come with second terms could be affecting the administration's approach to dealing with crises, making it less concerned about the political fallout. However much it may be prudent to pause in the midst of a crisis and make sure you're certain about a response, the White House could do much more to get out of damage-control mode, be more candid in its assessment of what transpired, and get ahead of the story. Finally, there is little doubt that making swift calls about removing officials from their posts is one of the best things a leader can do to appear decisive and prepared to restore trust. If anything, most leaders wish they'd made decisions to remove certain people sooner.

But another leadership challenge the president faces as a result of these scandals is far bigger than how he'll navigate lame-duck politics, manage crisis communications, or appear decisive and in charge. It's how he'll get anything done.

Unless these brewing quandaries are dealt with swiftly, each could consume the president and his administration at least for the remainder of the year, if not longer. They will be distracting enough to Congress (a Politico report says roughly one-third of House committees are investigating the White House in some manner) and, of course, to the White House that the president's agenda could easily get lost in the mess. If the attention to these issues gets out of hand, little progress is likely to take place on addressing the economy, unemployment, immigration reform, the deficit or any other of the  president's many competing priorities.

And that is the real scandal that should concern us all.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor | May 13, 2013